Rocking allure of heavy metal

The rugged material becomes poetry in the hands of designers setting trends with practical and refined applications in residential projects

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 3:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 3:29am

The epithet "man of steel" is often ascribed to superhuman characters made of the hard stuff. For Tom Kundig, however, it alludes to his love and use of metal, enabling his oft-quoted yearning for connection with nature.

The American artisan, once described as "one of residential architecture's rock stars", a partner in Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, has built whole houses out of metal, including a "virtually indestructible" weekend cabin in a Washington national park that, in April, won one of the American Institute of Architects' housing awards.

The rugged patina and raw materiality of the steel-clad cabin was the architect's response to its wilderness setting, but when Kundig steps into our living rooms, he has a poetic agenda: the simple act of opening a door "becomes a ballet between user and structure".

This explains the sensuous curves of the Tom Kundig Collection, a steel accessories line focused on intimately scaled hardware. The collection consists of more than 100 unique cut-and-fold steel products ranging from cabinet and door pulls to rollers and tables - each piece fabricated by ironmongers, then finished and waxed to reveal the subtle marks of its making.

Kundig's interest in steel stems from his early years alongside sculptor Harold Balazs. "His style of working influenced me, along with his reverence for the landscape and his fascination with the materials of industry - steel, concrete and large objects," Kundig says. "I learned about the balance of art and poetics from watching and working with him.

"I learned that natural steel left to weather is beautiful. As materials age, they develop their own history - a patina that is honestly earned and reveals the history of that object's creation, making and use. Steel is great for showing this."

Steel also matches Kundig's aim to "keep things simple" in his designs, by limiting the variety of materials used and choosing those that are utilitarian. "Steel, in particular, is a highly durable and low-maintenance material," he says. "Using materials that last and require little to no maintenance ultimately means using fewer resources over the life of the building."

But wouldn't steel be a little cold in a residential interior? On the contrary, says Peggy Bels, a Hong Kong-based designer who finds iron sheets work well in various interior incarnations, softening the look with a wooden floor, fabrics and cement finishes or shadows of grey paint.

Being rough, metal gives the feeling it always existed, she says. "It always looks different, and gives character to a place."

Bels likes to use black metal as cladding for walls, doors, stairs and cabinets. "These dark backgrounds allow light colours to pop and create more contrast and deepness," she says. "It's a good choice for kitchen cabinets - appearing less harsh than stainless steel - and when given a matt coating, it becomes graphic and elegant."

In one recent project, Bels used metal on the entrance wall, bedroom folding doors, closet and kitchen cabinets. On a second project, metal is fabricated also as bookshelves and a coffee table. The sheet metal is used in different thicknesses for variety.

Bels' use of metal is muted, but apparently, bling is big, too. Dornbracht, the German kitchen and bathroom company, has brought out a new range of rose-gold tapware (called Cyprum), while at Indigo Living, shiny-finish furniture is a hot item.

Indigo's managing director John McLennan says people are looking beyond the traditional silver finish. "It is not disappearing but being blended with other metallic colours such as bronze, brass and copper," he says, adding all work well with mirrored furniture, in a clear, antique or rose-gold mirrored effect.

Metalworkers have been influencing interior design since the early 20th century, when German art and architecture school Bauhaus educated a new generation of designers and architects to reject historical precedents and adopt the ideology of modern industry.

The Bauhaus era spawned such luminaries as Marianne Brandt and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, but Wolfram Quast, the regional sales director at Dornbracht Asia Pacific, credits Tom Dixon with rediscovering warmer metals with his copper Shade globe lights in 2005. "Since then, copper has become firmly established in modern interior design," he says.

Dornbracht channels the softer metallic hues in Cyprum, a highly reflective finish made from 18-carat fine gold with genuine copper.

Quast welcomes the change in taste from the cool whites and traditional metals (silver, steel and aluminium) of past years. "The warm and glowing hues of pink gold and copper are now experiencing a renaissance. These finishes symbolise elegance and beauty while at the same time bring warmth, intimacy and a familiar, natural feeling."